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Drake at the United Center, full of contradictions

Greg Kot

2:31 AM EST, December 13, 2013

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The bigger Drake gets, the more turmoil he feels. Or, in the immortal words of the late Notorious B.I.G., “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

Well, boo-hoo, right? It’s difficult to feel sorry for a guy who has had three straight best-selling albums, and cameos on dozens of hit singles. But Toronto native Aubrey Drake Graham toggled between a peacock strut and melancholy self-doubt Thursday at the nearly full United Center, and entertained an arena with his contradictions.

On “All Me,” he proclaimed, “I got everything … I cannot complain,” then dismissed it all: “Never mind what I got.” A bell tolled, as if a funeral were rolling past.

That’s Drake, a new breed of hip-hop star. Kanye West’s 2008 album “808s and Heartbreak” created a sonic template for this more vulnerable style, and other rap and R&B artists such as Kid Cudi, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean have exploited it. But none has taken it further commercially than Drake, who has dominated the mainstream in recent years by wearing his psychic bruises instead of hiding them behind his swagger.

A tougher trick is turning this intimacy into arena-filling music. He emerged on a circular catwalk, his band tucked into the center as he worked the stage. The pacing was brisk, until Drake climbed aboard a contraption that lifted him near the stadium’s rafters so he could shout out to the audience in the balconies. The 15-minute greet-the-fans ritual has been part of every Drake tour, and it’s time to retire it.

Otherwise, the rapper radiated charisma and peppered his set with hits, but with some welcome twists. The bass lines bounced heavier than on his recordings, but still fell short of the howitzer-like impact of most big hip-hop shows. Collages of sound drifted out from the keyboards, coloring in the cracks between words rather than articulating well-defined chords. Against this murky, futuristic backdrop, Drake extolled his perseverance on “Tuscan Leather” and the closing celebration “Started from the Bottom.”

Many skeptics could justifiably note that Drake’s “bottom” is many artists’ ceiling; he had a head start toward celebrity as a television star and an early endorsement from Lil Wayne. Yet he’s clearly established an individual style. Like his atmospheric music, his rhymes ooze out as if conceived during a late-night, stream-of-consciousness phone call. Two key examples of that style were brushed off: “Marvin’s Room” was not part of the set list, and his Rihanna collaboration “Take Care” was dispatched during a brief interlude by his DJ.

In their place came a duet with Jhene Aiko over subtle finger snaps and a drizzle of piano notes, a troubled dialogue about commitment. “Who wants to be 70 and alone?” Drake asked. “What are you so afraid of?” Aiko responded, her voice receding into the darkness.

It served as the night’s thematic centerpiece. The notion of “real” and “fake” friends surfaced several times. Everything – love, music, fame – was examined for its durability and authenticity.

But this was an arena show, after all, and Drake didn’t forget to dance. The rapper did spinning pogo hops in his sleeveless T-shirt while stitching together hits he shared with artists such as French Montana, 2 Chainz, Migos and DJ Khaled. The beats became more emphatic, the delivery more zealous. Yet even as “Hold On, We’re Coming Home” moved to a more insistent pulse, it also emphasized his soft, reassuring singing voice as he chastely serenaded a female fan on stage. It was an exception in another way, as well: a rare moment when one of Drake’s troubled narrators felt sure that everything would work out, after all. greg@gregkot.com

 Drake set list Thursday at the United Center:

1. Tuscan Leather (part 1)

2. Headlines

3. Crew Love

4. Tuscan Leather (part 2)

5. Furthest Thing

6. Wu-Tang Forever

7. Own It

8. Connect

9. Pop That (French Montana cover)

10. No New Friends(DJ Khaled cover)

11. No Lie (2 Chainz cover)

12. I'm On One (DJ Khaled cover)

13. Versace (Migos cover)

14. Pound Cake (with Future)

15. The Motion

16. Come Thru

17. From Time

18. DJ set

19. Hold On, We're Going Home

20. Worst Behavior

21. The Language

22. 305 to My City

24. … Problems (A$AP Rocky cover)

25. The Motto

26. HYFR

27. All Me

28. Started From the Bottom